I was casually browsing Nothing To See Here just now, and found this wonderful account of Sheffield's Castle Market, due for demolition, which will probably be gone before I get to set foot in that legendary city. There are dozens of photos, and every one worth a look. Looking at them, I feel I just must visit, before it disappears. There is something so poignant about the decay of 1950s and 60s optimism which places like this represent.
And yet, according to the NTSH account, it is not by any means all decay and decline. Certainly there is a distinct lack of modern glitz, the superficial flim-flam of the 21st century. But the market is well used, apparently, particularly so in the recession - but by the poor and the working class - not the sort of people any local authority wants as part of the image of a world class city which they are all meant to aspire to now. What the fuck does 'world class' mean, anyway? I don't know; no one knows, but they all want to be it.
I love market halls. Brought up a southerner, I knew nothing of them. The Queensgate Market in Huddersfield was my introduction to the species - a radical construction of concrete parabolas which achieved listed status while I was there in the teeth of those who believe that anything concrete should be pulled down or blown up ASAP. And what a place it was - everything you could possibly desire under one roof, from continental delicatessen to oversized thermal undergarments; from broken biscuits to old fashioned hardware (and enamel teapots, of course), from Nehru jackets to coffee in the Tudor style coffee shop with genuine polystyrene oak beams; each packed into a tiny open fronted retail unit. Where else would I have got a giant sink plunger for Andante's toilet; a hot steak slice for 74p, yards of cotton lace, and those rubber spouts you put on the taps...
The very beauty of these places is their utilitarian nature; their lack of image. They're there to sell you stuff you need, not to persuade you into wanting stuff you don't with oh-so-tasteful displays of twigs, pot pourri scents and Farrow and Ball green paint. They don't need to be fashionable or trendy, because they serve a purpose and provide a genuine service. Ironically, when many of them were built in the brave new world of the 50s and 60s they were cutting edge, the modern alternative to outdoor markets and Victorian buildings, But the fact that they haven't evolved since then speaks volumes about what we must now call their 'fitness for purpose'. But is the fact that they work enough? Can such a phenomenon survive in a world where more than ever style is elevated over substance, and nothing exists unless it has a 'brand' and an image?
Some people say the north of England is better than the south because the people are friendlier, or because the scenery is better. Both are likely true. But if you asked me the one thing that makes the north great, it's market halls.